Geoengineering is not a new concept—the science advisory committee of President Lyndon Johnson warned in 1965 that it may become necessary to mitigate global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions. More recently, the concept has gained support from A-list investors in response to the world’s worsening climate crisis.
At the same time, opposition grows from those that fear climate engineering could bring unintended consequences such as extreme weather pattern changes or become an excuse not to cut greenhouse gas emissions. As the debate continues, geoengineering remains on the table as a potential solution to—or at least mitigator of—climate change.
How Does Geoengineering Work?
Geoengineering roughly falls into two categories: carbon removal and solar modification. Both claim advantages and disadvantages; rather than relying solely on one or the other, maximizing their impact on climate change may require them to work in tandem.
If there is too much carbon in the atmosphere, the most logical solution may be to remove it. Planting huge new forests promises to reduce CO2 levels naturally, but the situation appears to require more aggressive removal—and far sooner than it would take for these forests to mature.
For more than 11 years, Canada-based company Carbon Engineering has pioneered a solution that captures carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere. It claims the technology can help counteract today’s “unavoidable” CO2 emissions as well as remove the large quantities of already emitted CO2 that remain trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere.
In June, Carbon Engineering revealed a new partnership with UK firm Storegga to set up Europe’s first large-scale carbon reduction and removal facility. Located in Scotland, the facility is expected to remove between 500,000 and a million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually after it becomes operational in 2026. Carbon Engineering also plans to open a second facility in Texas within the decade.
Hitherto the stuff of science fiction, perhaps, solar modification entails reflecting sunlight away from the Earth. This can include anything from setting up sun shields in space to making clouds more reflective. Heat-trapping cirrus clouds may also be targeted for dissipation.
One solar geoengineering project called the Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) has considered the possibility of spraying calcium carbonate dust into the atmosphere. Launched by Harvard University scientists and backed by funders including Bill Gates, SCoPEx hopes that applying this sort of aerosol on a giant scale could cool the Earth by reflecting sunlight into space.
Solar modification has understandably proved controversial compared with carbon removal. In collaboration with the Swedish Space Corporation, SCoPEx was due in June to launch a balloon carrying scientific equipment near the Arctic Circle up to 12 miles high. However, the test was canceled in March due to opposition from environmental groups and Sweden’s indigenous Saami reindeer herders, who wrote an open letter to SCoPEx warning the technology entailed “extraordinary” risks and that Sweden should instead focus on a transition to a net-zero carbon society through 100% renewable energy.
Could Geoengineering Help Avert Natural Disaster?
Nevertheless, some scientists believe the world now has no other choice than to adopt geoengineering in some form if it is to avert the worst future scenarios of global climate change. Geoengineering is likely to continue to stoke strong opinions, especially when it comes to solar modification.
As scholars and governments weigh the geoengineering’s potential—both positive and negative—impact investors can play a role in pinpointing the best possible response to combat climate change.
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